Risa Dickson of the University of Hawaii system answers questions during a public forum Thursday in the Old Main Room of Illinois State University's Bone Student Center in Normal. Dickson is among four finalists for vice president of academic affairs and provost at ISU.


NORMAL — Setting priorities and focusing on student needs are crucial as higher education goes through a period of transformation, a finalist for Illinois State University provost said at a public forum Thursday at the Bone Student Center.

Risa Dickson, professor and, until recently, vice president for academic planning and policy in the University of Hawaii system, is one of four finalists for vice president of academic affairs and provost.

“Public higher education is in a period of immense transformation,” Dickson said, citing challenges such as declining enrollment and funding. “ISU is currently in a very strong place with regard to those pressing issues facing higher education.”

Dickson said that while she was an administrator at California State University at San Bernadino, the state went through the worst budget crisis ever, with a half-billion dollars in state funding cut from higher education.

“We learned a lot about efficiencies. We learned a lot about what we could live without,” she said.

In setting priorities, it is important to involve faculty in the process and make sure they are heard and understand why decisions are made, even if they don't agree with them, Dickson said.

As an example of efficiency, she pointed to “shared learning spaces” and labs that could be used by more than one department, rather than have spaces idle for large periods of the day.

Dickson also said declining enrollment is “a problem that's going to get worse” and different approaches are needed to recruit students.

She suggested bringing students to campus as early as middle school for various events and academic tournaments and offering college classes to high school students.

“Bring the kids in when they're young so their vision of college is you,” said Dickson.

As needs and interests change, Dickson said, “We have to be nimble and flexible enough to respond to demand so we remain relevant to students.”

During her time with the University of Hawaii system, Dickson implemented enrollment management and distance learning plans.

She said distance learning works for some disciplines and is helpful for students in remote locations or when an institution has insufficient space. However, she said, “I think it's overrated,” and “I don't think the brick-and-mortar institution is dead.”

In describing her approach to making decisions, Dickson said, “One question I ask consistently is what is the problem we're trying to solve?” Along with that, it is important to “understand the potential implications of our actions and decisions,” she said.

Three more finalists will be visiting campus, hoping to fill the vacancy created when Janet Krejci left ISU to become dean of nursing at Marquette University at the end of 2016. Jan Murphy has served on an interim basis since January 2017.

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota



Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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